By Emily McConville
The measures farmers can take to protect water and soil are well-known, says Francis Eanes, a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates.
What’s less understood, he says, is “what sorts of cultural, social, and economic factors motivate any given farmer to actually implement those practices on their farm.”
It’s likely that farmers are influenced in overt ways. The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service, for example, gives farmers advice and financial incentives to reduce pollution.
Now, according to a study led by Eanes and published in the journal Environmental Management in November, we know of another potential influencer not normally associated with conservation: crop advisers.
Crop advisers work independently or for retailers like seed or fertilizer companies, helping farmers be more productive and efficient.
Because advisers offer value, farmers are likely to follow their advice, Eanes says.
“Farmers believe these folks understand the agronomics,” he says. Advisers “understand the context, and they’re working in the best interest of the farmer.”
That’s also the experience of Rick Kersbergen ’78, a crop adviser certified by the American Society of Agronomy who specializes in dairy farming in Maine. He says farmers trust the advice they’ve paid to get.
Kersbergen, an extension professor for sustainable dairy and forage systems with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has helped Maine dairy farmers go organic in recent years and researched pasture and forage systems for dairy cows, farm safety, and soil health. While he still works directly with dairy farmers, he now also runs seminars, helps would-be crop advisers study for the certification exam, and provides recertification training.
Kersbergen says farmers turn to crop advisers for all manner of farm management decisions.
“The trend has been for farmers to hire crop advisers to provide pest management advice as well as manure, nutrient, and herbicide-pesticide advice,” he says.
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That influence, Eanes and a team of coauthors found, could be directed to conservation. Before coming to Bates, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Purdue University’s National Resource Social Science lab, which has explored more generally how to get farmers to adopt conservation practices.
In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the group surveyed farmers in the Saginaw Bay region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where phosphorus and nitrogen from farms can get into waterways and end up in the Great Lakes, creating algae blooms and dead zones.